Like a secret roadside restaurant known only to the select few, the rich, muddy tidal flats between Everett and Whidbey Island have become a traditional spring stop for a very select group of hungry mammals.
About a dozen California gray whales, known as the Whidbey grays, make their way into this region seeking snacks of ghost shrimp, experts say.
That’ll explain why you may just hear people looking out over Possession Bay and shouting: “Thar she blows!”
“We love this time of year,” said Shane Aggergaard, the owner of Island Adventure Cruises. For the past five years, the company has launched whale-watching expeditions from Everett.
The three-hour tours begin departures today and are scheduled to continue through May 18.
The local waters, often within a few feet of the dock, are teeming with wildlife.
“Sometimes it takes a half-hour to get off the Navy pier,” Aggergaard said. “It really is an amazing area.”
It’s typical to see harbor seals, sea lions, eagles, porpoises, an abundance of sea birds, and, of course, the magnificent whales.
Experts aren’t exactly certain how this small subset of gray whales came to feed in the shallow tidal waters just off Everett.
Numbers vary from year to year, but about a dozen whales typically will spend a few months in between Whidbey Island and the Snohomish County coastline.
Several of the same individual whales have been spotted in these waters every year since 1990, the first year they were tracked, said John Calambokidis, a research biologist with Cascadia Research.
The Whidbey group is a fraction of the estimated gray whale population, about 20,000. The typical gray whale migrates from rich summer waters in the Bering Sea to wintering grounds off the Baja Peninsula in Mexico.
The 35-ton animals fast nearly all winter, so it makes sense that gray whales in the know would want a pit stop off Whidbey Island. All those shrimp make for a much-needed snack, Calambokidis said.
The whales, which can reach lengths of about 45 feet, probably eat about a ton each day.
They often feed when the tide is high, swimming close to the shoreline, said Howard Garrett, the co-founder of the Orca Network.
The whales squirt water at the mud, creating plumes of fertile, loosened muck. Then they suck in the ooze, filtering out nutrients to feed their impressive appetites.
“They use their mouth like a giant tongue and piston,” Garrett said.
All this creates a terrific chance to observe the animals close to home.
“It’s quite a unique opportunity,” Calambokidis said.
The best way to watch the whales is either aboard a commercial whale-watching vessel or from the shore, he said. Private boaters may get too close, which not only endangers the animals but also could result in jail time or fines for the boater.
From the comfort of the Island Explorer 3, the ship used by Island Adventure Cruises, people can watch as the whales swim, dive and feed. Trained naturalists are aboard each trip to answer questions.
Gray whales tend to cruise gently along the surface, coming up to breathe every 15 seconds, before diving deeper for as long as about seven minutes, Aggergaard said.
When the whale resurfaces, he (the Whidbey whales all have been male) typically will blow spray nearly 30 feet in the air.
While impressive to see, the odor is anything but fresh.
“It smells really bad,” Aggergaard said. “A gray whale has got the worst breath.”
Trips to see orcas near the San Juan Islands can take all day. That’s because orca pods travel hundreds of miles in search of food. The gray whales that feed in our waters usually find a favorite spot and stay put for weeks.
That means expeditions spot the whales quickly, and viewers get lots of time for photographing and observing, Aggergaard said.
Occasionally an orca pod may be wander this far south, or a stray humpback may drift by, but seeing a gray whale is all but guaranteed.
“They should expect to see gray whales,” he said. “It’s our highest sighting success.”
Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3447; firstname.lastname@example.org.
See for yourself
Island Adventure Cruises: Cruises depart at 11 a.m. from the Everett Marina near Anthony’s Homeport Restaurant, 1726 W. Marine View Drive. Cruises run every weekend and some weekdays in March. Daily trips begin in April and continue through May 18.
Tickets are $69 for adults; $59 for seniors 65 and older, military, groups of 10 or more, students with ID and AAA discounts; $49 for kids 3 to 12; children 2 and under are free. Go to www.islandadventurecruises.com or call 800-465-4604. Reservations are suggested.
Cascadia Research: Learn more about California gray whales, including a field guide to the Whidbey Island whales at www.cascadiaresearch.org.
Orca Network: Check for local whale sightings at www.orcanetwork.org/sightings/map.html.